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Partnership makes tax delinquency green for students

The house at 525 Clough Ave. is white now, but it's going green. Douglas County turned the keys to the property over to the Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College on Tuesday. It will become a hands-on learning lab for the school's Building Perfor...

WITC
Sam Nelson, a student in WITC's Building Performance Technician program, prepares to start a blower door test at the lab house at 525 Clough Ave., Tuesday. The blower door uses a fan to depressurize the home. Then students can use smoke sticks, thermal imaging cameras and their sense of touch to find areas that are leaking air. Plugging the air leaks can improve energy efficiency by preventing heat loss. (Jed Carlson/jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

The house at 525 Clough Ave. is white now, but it's going green.

Douglas County turned the keys to the property over to the Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College on Tuesday. It will become a hands-on learning lab for the school's Building Performance Technician students. Over the next few weeks they will analyze the building, then target it for energy efficiency improvements.

"They're going to be training to be basically CSI technicians on a house," said program instructor Duane Lasley. Instead of dusting for fingerprints or swabbing for DNA, they will use blower doors, smoke sticks, thermal imaging cameras and other specialized equipment to detect where the manufactured home is losing energy. The class plans to reach out to the community for donations and support as they retrofit the house. In addition, the class will look into renewable energy options and other sustainability features. Then the renovated home will go on the market.

"Douglas County is happy to partner with WITC on this project," said Keith Allen, chairman of Douglas County's Land and Development Committee. "This project addresses two very important needs of our community -- that of providing, affordable energy efficient housing and that of providing hands-on skills training to students."

For students, the lab house is a chance to come out of the closet. Prior to this, they have had to depressurize closets at the school to learn how to use a blower door. Now, their work will transform a home.

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"This will be great, getting a hands-on experience like this," said Sam Nelson, a first-year student with the program.

Nelson has been in the construction business for seven years. The Two Harbors native said he took the WITC course to learn more about the technology used to determine energy efficiency. It takes a long time to get that experience out in the field, he said. When he graduates, Nelson can find work as an air sealer, building performance technician, energy efficiency specialist or a host of other "green collar" jobs.

There is a growing demand for energy efficiency and renewable energy professionals, according to the 2011 Survey of the Energy Industry presented by the Association of Energy Engineers. The survey found there is a dwindling supply of energy professionals and that certification enhanced their career success. According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, the demand for "green" buildings has increased. Green construction employed more than 1 million workers between 2000 and 2008, according to the bureau. That number is expected to triple to 3.3 million by 2013.

The green building field is also a good fit for the current economy. New home construction is not booming, Nelson said.

"The big thing is people want to fix up what they have," he said.

While only 35 new homes go up in Duluth a year, Lasley said, there are 19,000 existing homes that would benefit from energy efficiency upgrades. About 50 percent of them were built before 1955.

Sometimes, it doesn't take a huge expense to see real savings. Lasley, the former Duluth Building Official, found that out himself one Memorial Day weekend. He spent the three days putting $500 worth of insulation into his attic. Since then, the upgrade has netted him a savings of $200 a month on his utility bills.

"The whole house is a system," Lasley said. From sealing a foundation to adding gaskets behind outlet covers, there are things homeowners can do to make that system run more efficiently. The lab house provides an opportunity for students to not only analyze but upgrade the house, learning what changes net the biggest "bang for your buck." They will also be able to verify if a house is performing up to a certain energy efficiency standard, Nelson said, which could be a selling point for a home.

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The lab home is a tax delinquent property that was deeded back to the county after all other avenues were exhausted. According to County Board Chairman Doug Finn, less than half a dozen of such improved properties are handed back to the county each year.

"We work a long time, trying to make it work for people," he said. While they don't like to seize such properties, Finn said, "This is a good opportunity for everybody."

The county thrives on partnerships, said County Administrator Andy Lisak. He remembers watching the house at 525 Clough go up 40 years ago from across the street at Ericsson School.

"It was the newest in the area," Lisak said. "When these guys are done it's going to be the most energy efficient house in the area."

Maria Lockwood covers news in Douglas County, Wisconsin, for the Superior Telegram.
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